December 4th, 2023
From “snow” to “ice,” “junk” to “blow,” and “X” to “acid,” the world of drug culture has birthed a lexicon as diverse as the substances themselves. This linguistic labyrinth is a subculture of words and phrases that communicate, obscure, and forge identities within the drug culture. Beyond the words lies a reflection of society’s attitudes, values and behaviours, emphasising the need for responsible discourse and the support offered by organisations like UKAT for those grappling with drug addiction.
In this exploration, we will journey through the fascinating evolution of drug slang, uncovering its historical roots, dissecting its metaphors and exploring the reasons for its transformations.
Drug slang: A multifaceted language
Drug slang serves various purposes for drug users and within the wider world of drug culture. These include:
Describing physical drug properties
Some drug slang is quite literal, describing the physical qualities of the substances themselves. For instance, “brown” is often used to refer to heroin, highlighting its characteristic colour, while crystal meth is often called “ice” due to its crystalline appearance. Other terms are abbreviations of the chemical names for drugs, such as M-Cat for mephedrone (4-MethylmethCAThinone) and related terms like Meow-Meow.
Communication and community
Drug slang can also function as a form of communication, playing a vital role in shaping the identity of subcultures within drug culture. For example, terms like “420”, “the munchies”, and “Scooby snacks” are important for the cannabis community, while “Molly” and “Mandy” are used affectionately by people who take ecstasy.
Code and detection prevention
Drug slang terms can also act as coded language, concealing the true nature of discussions from outsiders like parents or the police. For instance, during the opium dens era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, users and sellers of opium developed a rich lexicon of slang terms such as “dream stick” and “joy pop”. These terms allowed patrons to discuss their activities without drawing undue attention.
Drug slang is a reflection of the substances themselves but also the cultures and regions where they originate or are prevalent. For example, the term “chasing the dragon” for heroin use reflects the Eastern roots of opium use, while “Columbian Bam-Bam”, a slang term for cocaine popularised in the 1980s, directly references the country of origin. The use of “bam-bam” adds an element of onomatopoeia, evoking the rapid and intense effects of the drug.
Cultural impact on drug slang
The evolution of drug slang is marked by distinctive eras and cultural movements that have left their linguistic imprint on the lexicon of drug culture. These periods of transformation reflect changes in drug use and shifts in societal attitudes and perceptions.
For example, the counterculture of the 1960s gave rise to a wealth of drug slang terms. Phrases like “turn on, tune in, drop out” were associated with LSD, reflecting the era’s embrace of psychedelic experiences and a rejection of mainstream values.
Similarly, the cocaine boom of the 1980s brought with it a new set of slang terms, such as “coke” and “crack.” These words not only reflected the popularity of cocaine but also the rapid spread of the drug and its impact on urban communities. “Nose candy” humorously alludes to the drug’s method of consumption, while “crack” vividly describes the cracking sound produced when the drug is smoked.
However, drug slang can also evolve,, perhaps best exemplified by the term “dope.” During the ‘60s and ‘70s, dope” was the most common slang term for cannabis. However, in the past few decades, the term “dope” has undergone a significant shift as cannabis has become more socially acceptable in many places. Today, “dope” is predominantly used to refer to heroin or sometimes crystal meth rather than cannabis. This linguistic evolution reflects the changing landscape of drug culture and the shifting associations of popular terms over time.
Subcultures and drug slang
Subcultures also play a pivotal role in shaping and preserving drug slang. These subcultures form communities with their codes, values and linguistic customs, often using slang to reinforce their identity and maintain secrecy.
One example is the rave subculture of the late 20th century, which centred around electronic music and club drugs like ecstasy. Within this subculture, the term “rolling” became a widely recognised description of the euphoric effects of ecstasy, forging a shared language among ravers.
Biker gangs and motorcycle clubs have also contributed to the lexicon of drug slang. The term “crank,” used to describe methamphetamine, is linked to biker culture and their use of the drug to maintain long hours on the road.
Subcultures like these create their own linguistic ecosystems, where understanding and using drug slang becomes a rite of passage and a mark of belonging. The language becomes not just a means of communication but a tool for defining group identity and distinguishing insiders from outsiders.
The use of drug slang to demonise users
While drug slang can serve as a form of subcultural identity and secrecy, it also has a darker side. Some slang terms are intentionally crafted to demonise or stigmatise drug users, reinforcing negative stereotypes and perpetuating harmful narratives. For example, terms like “junkie” and “crackhead” carry strong negative connotations, painting drug users as morally weak or dangerous.
Another facet of this stigmatising language is the use of metaphors that equate drug use with evil or immorality. Phrases often used in the tabloid press, like “the devil’s candy” for heroin, “demon dust” for PCP or “zombie dust” for bath salts, contribute to the vilification of drug users and turn public opinion against them.
These words not only stigmatise those with substance use disorders but can also deter individuals from seeking help or support, fearing the judgement and condemnation associated with these derogatory terms.
The influence of the internet and pop culture
The advent of the internet has had a profound impact on the evolution of drug slang. Online communities, forums, and social media platforms have accelerated the spread of new terms and the adaptation of existing ones. This digital age has created a globalised network of drug culture enthusiasts who exchange ideas and slang in real time.
The internet has also introduced new terms and abbreviations specific to online drug communities. For example, “DNM” stands for “Darknet Market,” where individuals buy and sell illicit substances, and “RC” refers to “Research Chemicals,” substances that mimic the effects of illegal drugs but are often sold legally as “not for human consumption.”
Pop culture, including music, movies, and television, has also significantly shaped drug slang. Iconic films like “Trainspotting” introduced phrases like “choosing life” as a metaphor for rejecting drug addiction, while music genres like hip-hop have been instrumental in popularising terms like “purple drank” or “lean,” referencing a concoction of cough syrup and soda.
The dangers of romanticising drug slang
While drug slang can be fascinating from a linguistic and cultural perspective, it is essential to acknowledge the dangers associated with the romanticisation and normalisation of drug use. Pop culture, the media and influential people can inadvertently contribute to these harmful perceptions.
The portrayal of drug use as glamorous or rebellious in movies, music and other forms of entertainment can make drugs seem glamorous and downplay their risks. This can lead to misguided beliefs, especially among young people, that drug use is a pathway to excitement or self-discovery.
Similarly, the normalisation of drug use in popular culture can desensitise society to the very real and often devastating consequences of drug addiction. When drug use is depicted casually or without acknowledging the potential harm, it can create a false sense of security and minimise the urgency of addressing drug abuse and addiction as a public health crisis.
It is crucial to approach discussions about drug use with sensitivity and responsibility, especially in the age of the internet and widespread media influence. We must balance the exploration of drug slang’s linguistic richness with a commitment to promoting accurate information, harm reduction and support for those affected by addiction.
Drug slang is a complex and ever-evolving language that reflects the intricacies of drug culture and society at large. While some of the terms can be funny, there are serious underlying risks that many drugs present, which need to be fully appreciated. By understanding drug slang’s historical roots, cultural significance and potential for harm, we can engage in more informed and empathetic conversations about drug addiction and its impact on individuals and communities.